Lost Listeners Anoint Musical Messiahs


This article originally appeared in Issue# 34

Why is our culture is so bereft of meaningful symbols that the young turn to music for transcendence?

A priestly monarch, chosen by God to unite polity and religion, was one of the earliest images of divinely chosen leadership in Judaism. Later, both Judaism and Christianity developed more complex concepts of the messiah.

Although few people realize it, the public persona and response to rock stars today shows a hunger for this form of charismatic religious authority. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Prince are only a few of the stars who have used messianic images to describe their public roles.

When Prince sings,

I'm your messiah and you're the reason why
I would die for you...
You're just a sinner I am told...
I'll make you good when you are bad
I'll make you happy when you are sad...
I am your conscience, I am love...
All I really need is to know that you believe
That I would die for you...
- "I Would Die for You"

he is presenting the star as a superhuman who saves the world by becoming its focal point.

In some ways, rock and roll is especially well suited to the cultivation of such fantasies. Performances contain elements of the dramatic but are more spontaneous than traditional theater. Performers are free to create and develop stage personas, and yet are permitted by the definition of the situation to blur the boundaries between themselves and the roles they play onstage.

While playing out these roles, they are not expected to create a moral vision or narrative that carries over from song to song. Nevertheless, it is possible to suggest such a narrative implicitly or explicitly.

Embedded in these fantasies is the belief that fame in itself is a means of salvation. In a sense, stardom is the ultimate success story in American culture. Many of us still resonate to a version of the Protestant ethic that deems material success to be a sign of predestined divine grace.

And, as Bruce Springsteen sings in "Open All Night," the music itself is also seen as a means of grace:

Radios' jammed up with gospel stations
Lost souls callin long distance salvation
Hey Mr, DJ woncha bear my last prayer
Hey ho rock n' roll deliver me from nowhere.

Hunger for Meaning

If we can see this hunger so plainly in popular culture, what is its presence telling us?

Obviously we need to think seriously about whether rock and roll is a worthy vessel for the spiritual aspirations and energies that are being poured into it. Moreover, we need to ask ourselves why our culture is so bereft of meaningful stories and images that young adults turn to rock music in order to experience transcendence.

One of the penalties of modernity is the necessity for individuals to play multiple roles. In American culture it is commonplace to divide work from leisure, business values from family values, politics from religion. Many people bring different moral standards to bear in different settings, but it seems clear that every human being also desires wholeness and coherence.

Although rock and roll has moved from anti-culture to the mainstream in recent years, its origins lie in negation, not affirmation. Perhaps it will never outgrow its original function as an expression of restlessness and rebellion.

However, in the past few years we have seen repeated attempts by mainstream media to assimilate rock and roll. They range from Time's glorification of Bruce Springsteen as a culture hero for Americans of every age and class to the production of a full-length movie version of Prince's album, "Purple Rain."

In the opening scenes of that movie, the character played by Prince intones, "Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life..." His disquieting parody of a minister's solemn tones introduces a frenzied dance song, "Let's Go Crazy," which advocates a sort of sexual hedonism.

It seems however that Prince is not really advocating promiscuity. A careful examination of the lyrics reveals that he is preaching a gospel of sexual pleasure as an antidote to knowledge of impending war, disaster, and death — and that, moreover, this is a prelude to a God-given afterlife. His irreverence toward traditional religion, and his strong critique of a culture in which sex is obscene but nuclear war is not, should be seen as an authentic rock and roll attitude -although the terms of his message would have to be toned down considerably in order to be acceptable to all segments of mainstream culture.

Messiah Imagery

To those outside the rock and roll subculture it may seem shocking that messianic themes are so often linked with sexually explicit lyrics.

One explanation may be the metaphoric impact of sexual imagery. The rock and roll messiah does not offer an ethical code or an example of virtue; he or she offers a relationship between audience and performer that effects a transformation, and the sexual metaphor is a serviceable one for describing this salvation through relationship. It evokes the polarities of repulsion -attraction, alienation and community, dominance and subordination. In this paradox, rock stars are seen as both decadent and innocent, suffering and invulnerable, fascistic and liberating. The sexual as metaphor depicts the fusion of these opposites. When we participate as spectator -worshippers in a rock and roll performance, we are asked to enter into a relationship that will transform us.

The sociologist Max Weber used the term "charisma" to describe a quality attributed to religious prophets. Today we use the term in speaking of the ability of popular performers to sustain the interest of their audiences. Although the two phenomena are parallel in many ways, they are also profoundly different. While rock stars, like skillful preachers, can move us deeply, their performance is not preaching.

If we try to claim that rock and roll has the power to save people and change the world, we do violence to its spirit, which is experiential rather than programmatic. Rock and roll can inspire us, but we should not demand salvation from it.

Channeling Influence

Projects such as "Live Aid" and "USA for Africa" have demonstrated the rock community's power to mobilize media and communications technology, to raise money and consciousness, and to endorse international political-economic programs. This bespeaks vast resources and tremendous influence, but the saturation point of public interest is still untested.

If interest dies quickly, we may look again at rock and roll's ability to encourage sincere and lasting compassion and global consciousness. However, if in fact performers fulfill this potential for mobilizing resources in the interest of large-scale projects, we will have even more to worry about.

I deeply respect the eloquence and compassion of Bruce Springsteen, but I have qualms about the prospect of millions of people looking to him for guidance about labor economics.

I think that Tina Turner is one of the most exciting performers in popular music today, but would not want to accord her undue influence in making logistical decisions about food distribution in Ethiopia.

Moreover, it is clear that for every rock and roll song that advocates global consciousness there are hundreds of others that are morally neutral — and more than a few encourage people to devote all their energies to a sexual relationship that is little more than narcissism for two. It is unfortunate that this is the case, but it does not follow that we should demand that rock and roll avoid certain themes or that it stresses only what coincides with our own values.

An Expression of Values

Perhaps we need to understand more clearly that rock and roll began and still endures as an expression — rather than as a source — of values. If we censor the explicit sexual content of popular music, we will not be eradicating the sexual interests of its listeners. If we repress the enduring fantasy of the rock star as messiah, we will lose a valuable source of insight about the ways in which our culture succeeds or fails to provide images of transcendence and connectedness.

Some will claim that rock and roll is a subjective emotional phenomenon, a trivial pleasure at best. As they mature, many rock stars seem to downplay or deny that rock and roll has any social or religious significance.

David Bowie, refusing the burden of transcendence, sings, "turn the holy pictures so they face the wall." ("Ricochet") Mick Jagger, responding to the adulation of his audience, mocks their intensity by asking, "If I could stick a knife in my heart and suicide right on the stage, would that satisfy you?" In the song's refrain, he stresses that what he does is, after all, "only rock and roll" ("It's Only Rock and Roll").

I have been studying rock and roll as a social and cultural phenomenon for several years, and can only conclude that it cannot be understood simplistically. We need to be aware of the inappropriateness of overestimating the moral responsibility or doctrinal purity that ought to be expected of rock stars. If anything, rock and roll is about imagining that the world can be different, rather than implementing specific plans for changing it or saving it.

Most of all, we need to remember that if we find elements of rock and roll disturbing, we should be examining the social and cultural source of that disturbance, rather than campaigning to eradicate a musical genre that expresses it.

Author Bio: 

Deborah Finn is a doctoral student in religion and culture at Emory University in Atlanta. Her dissertation is on religious themes in popular music.